This year, 29th Ward residents will once again get a chance to have their say in how $1 million in “aldermanic menu” money will be spent, even if the process will look somewhat different due to COVID-19.
Every year, each alderman gets $1.4 million in funds to spend on infrastructure-related project, which, in practice, means anything from fixing up sidewalks to painting murals. Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29th) is the only West Side alderman to allow residents to suggest ideas and vote on how that money will be spent through the process known as participatory budgeting.
This year, much of what would normally happen in person is happening virtually. Taliaferro is currently collecting ideas and recruiting volunteers online. It is not currently clear how the voting will look like, or when it will take place, but it is expected to be some combination of in-person and online voting.
When Taliaferro originally ran for office in 2015, he promised to bring participatory budgeting to 29th Ward if elected. He didn’t do it during his first year in office, saying that there was a backlog of street resurfacing needs that had to be taken care of as soon as possible. But he introduced participatory budgeting for a portion of the menu funding the following year, and, with some modifications, the process has happened every year since then.
In the past, the 29th Ward hosted idea collection workshops, and residents and community organizations were welcome to submit their ideas to the ward office. The committee of volunteer community representatives then met to decide which projects should go on the ballot. The ward staff then looked at whether there was enough menu money to cover the costs of those projects, and whether there are any legal or jurisdictional issues that would need to be addressed.
Once the ballot was finalized, residents had to vote on two items: how much of the money would go toward street resurfacing and which non-street resurfacing projects the money should be spent on. Residents could vote for up to three projects. Any 29th Ward resident who is at least 14 years and old can vote.
The projects that are selected are based on both the number of votes and how much money the majority of residents chose to spend on non-street resurfacing needs, so the more money that goes toward street resurfacing, the less money is available for everything else.
Byron Watson, Taliaferro’s staff assistant, explained that, because of the pandemic, the idea collection is happening virtually.
Residents have until Sept. 19 to submit ideas using online forms at https://forms.gle/LPr6HWYGNt3zgKnV6 (with a Spanish-language version available at https://forms.gle/qYGL43GY3QJWCb1z7).
The forms also let residents sign up to volunteer. The ward office held a virtual community meeting on Aug. 19 to discuss idea collection, which volunteers will work in what areas and when the vote will take place.
Even before the pandemic, the participation has been an ongoing issue. While the number of voters has increased over the years, it’s still a small portion of the ward population. Watson said that they intend to rely on Participatory Budgeting Team Leaders – volunteer community stakeholders – to help get the word out about the process and encourage residents to be involved. They also intend to promote participatory budgeting at ward events, and tell anyone who visits the ward office about it.
Watson said that they still haven’t decided on when the vote would take place, but he expects it to be some combination of online and in-person voting.
“After finalizing which projects make the ballot then we have to engage our neighbors to vote,” he said. “We did online voting last year so, I would imagine we will do both in-person and online voting.”
Progress on Last Year’s Projects
Last year, 330 residents voted to spend $600,000 out of $1 million on street resurfacing. The winning projects included light pole community markers along Central Avenue and Austin Boulevard; Columbus Park tennis court flood lights; adding a pedestrian island and pedestrian crossing bump-outs on the portion of North Avenue, mid-way between Natchez and Nagle avenues; and improvements to Rutherford Sayre Park, Harambee and Austin Green Team community gardens.
Watson explained those projects are still works in progress. The ward has been working with the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events on the specifics of where the light pole signs will go, and Watson said that he expects them to be installed in the first quarter of 2021.
But the timeline for the Columbus Park flood lights is less certain, because the negotiations with the Chicago Park District are still ongoing, and North Avenue improvements won’t go ahead at all because Illinois Department of Transportation, which has jurisdiction over it because it’s a state highway, “said no” to the project.